In this month's exclusive interview, Robert Schwalb and Robin Laws, designers of the new Fiendish Codex II sourcebook venture into the nine layers of Hell itself. In the interests of better involving the player community with the D&D website, questions for this interview were solicited in part via the message boards. Our thanks to everyone who took the time to submit their fiendish questions.
Wizards of the Coast: It may be unwise to study too closely the secrets of Hell, but we're willing to take those risks! To start with, how did your involvement with Fiendish Codex II begin? Did you have an interest in the subject matter from previous editions?
Robert J Schwalb: I'm sort of typecast (grin). Ever since I became a freelance game designer, I've had a knack for landing jobs that dealt with evil subjects. Chris Perkins pinged me to work on Fiendish Codex I, but tragically I was swamped with a project for another company, and so I had to take a pass. I kicked myself. I wouldn't make that same mistake twice. So, I cleared my decks for this one.
As for an interest in devils, I've always been keen on the darker elements in the D&D cosmology. Maybe it's because my mother freaked a bit (hi mom). Devils have been among the coolest for me since I got my hands on the 1st edition Monster Manual. I'm ashamed to admit it, but I've had a fondness for Glasya since Monster Manual 2--what can I say, I like women with horns and tails.
Robin D Laws: Anybody who grew up playing AD&D in the late seventies and early eighties considers the big demons and devils to be the Big Kahunas of monsterdom. Every player dreamed of getting their characters powerful enough to take on Asmodeus and survive. Devils have always struck me as the coolest of infernal D&D baddies, because they have an agenda and a culture--even though that has not been well defined until now. And I always appreciate opportunities to explore the nasty and gooey side of fantasy imagery.
Wizards: When it comes to past editions, Hell has undergone some definite revisions when it comes to rulers, history, the Blood War.... Can you tell us something of the nature of Hell as now presented in this book: such as what sources you followed, which elements you retained, which you revised, and which you jettisoned?
RJS: Robin can say more, but the Nine Hells dispenses with a lot of the clutter, while retaining the flavor. The biggest and coolest change was removing the Hag Countess as an archdevil and replacing her with Glasya. The rest of the archdevils remain more or less the same--Baalzebub is still a slug, Levistus is trapped in ice, and Mephistopheles plots to overthrow Asmodeus.
RDL: I was going to be much more circumspect about that! My plan for detailing the Nine Hells was to evolve the existing conception of the setting, not to discard it. When I ran into an element from the past I wasn't comfortable with, I downplayed it rather than cutting it out entirely. For example, the Planescape line made the Hells much more of a livable environment than I wanted. So I cut back on that concept somewhat, while still leaving traces of it for those who still want to recreate the Planescape vibe. Glasya's ascension is an example of evolving the existing materials. Her machinations have been foreshadowed in previous publications for years. Now she finally gets what she wanted. And the poor old Hag Countess doesn't get a comfortable retirement, either. This is important in portraying the Hells as both eternal but currently in the midst of big changes. The situation is in flux, giving PCs the chance to jump in and get involved in an unstable political situation.
RJS: In my sections, I looked at a lot of materials, including the 1st edition Monster Manuals and Manual of the Planes, the Ed Greenwood articles in Dragon Magazine, Faces of the Fiends, Planes of Law and the rest of the Planescape setting sourcebooks, as well as the current materials that cover the Hells. There's a lot of stuff in the canon that would have been great to fit in, but much of it was contradictory, and some simply couldn't fit inside. One thing that we did not cover were the Ancient Baatorians. At some level, we assumed that the baatezu eliminated rival elements to reinforce their monolithic control of the Nine Hells. Through misinformation and propaganda, anything other than the baatezu has been relegated to something lesser. It doesn't matter if it's true or not; it's true to the baatezu, and their word is law.
Wizards: Looking at Hell itself, does FCII cover all nine layers in detail? What type of material is presented? (If you were planning a vacation, what layer would be your first choice to visit?)
RJS: All nine layers are covered. Naturally, the Hag Countess's layer has undergone the most significant changes. Robin handled the layer descriptions and details, so I'll let him handle this one. (Maladomini would be my vacation spot--chicks with horns and tails, remember? Oh, but Fierna's just a bit too creepy for me.)
RDL: You get basic geography, typical population, politics, roleplaying tips, encounters, and a focused look at a particular location, with map. Sometimes it's a map of a whole layer, like Nessus' surface canyons. Other times it's a city, or an installation. I made sure that all the layers were nasty in their own way, and would under no circumstances book a vacation to any part of the Hells. If I did my job right, every lawful PC will be on their best behavior from here on out, to avoid damnation. The Hells are a terrible place to spend eternity. And those chicks with the horns and tails seem like fun at first, but believe me, you don't want to hook up with them.
Wizards: And there are the Lords of the Nine Layers: one concern players had with FCI regarded the Demon Lords; many felt their Challenge Ratings were artificially weakened. How are FCII's Lords of the Nine Layers handled? Are these the actual lords, or aspects more suitable for a high-level party to (someday) meet? Other than their CRs, have their stats changed from previous incarnations?
RJS: This was a tricky issue. This time around, we were very clear to make sure everyone knows that the Archdevils presented were all aspects. To be honest, I too think Asmodeus should be a CR "silly-huge" bad guy with all the bells and whistles, but, seriously, who'd use him? The number of players out there that run 66th-level characters are relatively miniscule to the folks playing characters between 6th and 15th. By presenting the archdevils as aspects, we preserved them as great campaign ending bad-guys, but without emasculating them. Oh, and the aspect of Asmodeus has a CR 27.
As for statistics, there are some changes. I tried to streamline the opponents in such a way as to make them easier to use, while retaining their fearsome capabilities. For example, Asmodeus still has the ruby rod he's described as having in the Book of Vile Darkness. Whether this is the real thing or a facsimile of something far more powerful, that's for DMs to decide.
Wizards: In the recent FCII preview, there's the quote: "When his final plans fall into place, Asmodeus intends to punish his former masters of the celestial sphere for daring to look down upon the foot soldiers who did all the dirty work." Does this mean that we'll learn a bit of Asmodeus's "true" origins (which have changed between sources, such as 2nd editions Guide to Hell, and 2nd edition's Hellbound)?
RJS: Robin handled the history and origins of the Nine Hells, so I'll leave it to him to flesh out. The short answer is yes.
RDL: The slightly longer answer is maybe. The words "true" and "devils" never belong together in the same sentence. The book kicks off with an origin myth for Asmodeus. It is described as being, like any proper myth, true--whether it happened or not. That said, the D&D take on the myth of The Fall is my favorite part of the book.
Wizards: Speaking of the lords, is there any mention of Hell's former rulers: namely Geryon (last seen in the Tome of Magic as a vestige), and Moloch?
RJS: Mention, yes. Much detail, no. There are nuggets for many of Hell's former rulers scattered throughout the book, but we chose to focus our attention on the active agents of evil, rather than on those dead, buried, or transformed into vestiges (Tome of Magic covered most of these folks rather well, I think).
Wizards: Then there's Tiamat, former ruler of Hell's first layer; has she regained her throne?
RJS: Tiamat is an interesting case. Since she's a goddess, and having been discussed at great length in several other sourcebooks, we didn't spend a lot of time on her. Bel kept his seat and he's still having trouble with the other archdevils (they don't trust him since he double-crossed his predecessor). He's brokered a deal with Tiamat to gain use of the abishai, though what the goddess of chromatic gains in exchange remains a mystery. Propped up by her favor and that of the Dark Eight, Bel's place seems secure... for now.
Wizards: Beyond the lords, what does Fiendish Codex II mention of the other denizens: such as the dukes, or the Dark Eight?
RJS: We focused our attention on the active masters of the Nine Hells. There are a few mentions of past dukes (or prince or some other hellish noble) here and there, but most of this information is in Tome of Magic: Pact, Shadow, and True Name Magic. You'll find the archdevils of the Nine Hells are rather vigilant in dealing with upstarts and rivals.
RDL: Along with the very top guys, the sample encounters present hellish denizens of various challenge ratings. You get to meet, by example, the various local rulers and functionaries an average adventuring party is likely to be handle--or at least interact with. In a way, it's more important to see examples of middle-ranking devils than more great big guys who can squish all but the buffest parties.
Wizards: When it comes to the devils themselves, does the book offer conversions of previous monsters (such as the nupperibo)? What of new, previously unknown devils? Is there any information on those infernal war engines powered by the pain of torture?
RJS: Absolutely. There was some early discussion as to whether it would be worth including the nupperibo since, mechanically, they are quite similar to lemures, but I'm pleased to say that my favorite, bloated, blind, mute fiend made the cut. We took the chance to update some 3rd edition devils found in previous sourcebooks, such as the narzugon and spined devil (spinagon), bringing them in line with the 3.5 rules as well as to tweak and slightly modify their abilities to make them more useful in play. The new monster format gave me a lot more room to discuss the nature, character, and motives of these fiends, giving them their proper due.
As for new devils, there are all sorts of disturbing things in this book. The dogai (or assassin devil) serve as Hell's hit men. Robin came up with the harvester devil, a fiend that specializes in making diabolical pacts. The hellfire engine covers the infernal war machine. The vicious ayperobos swarm is a crowd of tiny devils that like little fat hairy humanoids with big leering mouths. Oh, and there's a new devil that's made from the awakened flesh of the Hag Countess. Mmmm tasty.
RDL: The harvester devil fills a necessary hole in diabolical imagery--the classic slick-talking fiend who wants to sign you to a Faustian pact. Much of my section on devil culture is devoted to explaining their economy, which provides you with their reasons for working their evil schemes throughout the material plane. You find out why devils gather souls, what they do with them, and how the corruption of souls fuels their entire evil society.
Wizards: So far, this has all been about the devils. When it comes to the players, what does Fiendish Codex II have in store for them: are there any new prestige classes, feats, spells? And are these geared for PCs fighting devils, or for the more fiendish-minded PC?
RJS: There sure are! For feats, we built on the solid foundation set forth by the FCI, and presented a new category of feats called devil-touched feats. Devil-Touched is a doorway to gaining new feats that get better with the more devil-touched feats you select. We slipped in a few divine feats for those clerics and paladins who specialize in fighting devils, and a metamagic feat called Disrupting Spell that reduces the save DC of spells, spell-like abilities, or supernatural abilities--perfect for defusing devilish abilities. We introduced a number of feats for devils that grant them cool abilities based on their allegiance to a particular archdevil, giving DMs additional tools for customizing their devils.
We fit in four prestige classes. All, naturally, deal with devils in some way or another. The hellbreaker specializes in breaking into and out of the Nine Hells to filch from the baatezu. He has a number of abilities designed to minimize or interfere with the common abilities used by devils. For warlock fans, I designed the hellfire warlock. This nasty class gives PCs the ability to increase their eldritch blast with raw hellfire at the expense of their soul. There's also the hellreaver, a sexy class for paladins, who channels his outrage and fury into special abilities that give him specific resistances and combat buffs for fighting evil outsiders. Finally, we have the soulguard. This cat's shtick is fighting and defeating diabolical pacts and mortals in the service of these terrible foes.
We also had room for some new spells too. Most of these are investiture spells. These allow a caster to infuse the essence of a devil into a mortal, giving him a suite of abilities that replicate or evoke the abilities of the associated fiend. We offer plenty, but creative DMs can build additional ones using those included as a guide.
Wizards: Plus, there's a new PC race in town, we hear. What can you tell us about the hellbred? A force of virtue? Or a force of fiendish might?
RJS: The hellbred race is a great way for players to use much of the material presented in this book and others without having the character be evil. These characters are reborn after the moment of death, when they earnestly repented for the mortal failings. Since devils are unwilling to release such a choice morsel, they fight for the soul, twisting and transforming it into something new. Their bodies are corrupted twisted by evil, yet the gods cleanse their souls, freeing them of the taint and corruption that plagued them in life. These are doomed characters that fight for their redemption.
Given their unique nature, hellbreds have several cool racial features. They gain evil's exception, an ability that allows them to utilize evil magic items and spells without picking up those pesky negative levels. As they advance, they also acquire additional abilities, letting them develop devilish traits. In short, the hellbred is a great option for player's looking to play doomed champions, anti-heroes, and other dark and gloomy characters without having to play an evil alignment.
Wizards: As a final question, have you played in D&D campaigns that have ventured into Hell, either as the player or the DM? Any special memories from those games? Any advice for parties making that extreme trek, or for DMs attempting to run such games?
RJS: A descent into the Nine Hells is classic D&D . That picture of the paladin fighting for his life against a group of devils inspired my style of gaming--violent, cruel, and nasty. Asmodeus and other archdevils long served as prominent villains in my campaigns. In fact, the epic decade-long mega-campaign I ran from the start of 2nd edition through the first heady months of 3rd saw Asmodeus as one of the villainous principles. I can't go into too much detail about Asmodeus's interactions with a certain lawful evil conjurer, but it was... well... graphic.
The Nine Hells is a great playground for DMs. It's a perfect place to set a sweeping campaign, thrusting the player characters into the heart of the Blood War, fighting their way through a sea of demons only to find themselves ensnared by the treacherous politicking of the baatezu. Since the Hells have only nine layers and nine archdevils, as a setting, this plane gives DM's a finite playing field and injects political intrigue, grotesque violence, treachery, deceit, terrible bargains, and a healthy dose of totalitarian rule. Whether the PCs are fighting their way out of Hell, rescuing a mortal wrongly held there, or simply taking the fight to the fiends, there are endless opportunities for DMs to work their magic.
For players, just remember this. You might think it's cool and brave and heroic to descend into the depths of this plane and fight the good fight. But remember, when it comes to the baatezu, they don't let anything happen that they don't want to happen in the first place. You might think you're doing a great service to the planes by butchering some bad guys, but someone down there--probably an archdevil--is benefiting from your invasion. Do you really want to do the dirty work of the baatezu? Don't let me stop you; just watch your backs.
RDL: My playtest campaign remained solidly earthbound. A journey to Hell is great, but there's so much you can do with devilkind on the PCs' home turf. They're intelligent enemies, so they break the inherent contract between D&D adventurer and the monsters. They don't wait around waiting for you to come bust down their dungeon doors and take their loot. If you take their stuff--which they need to gather souls--they come after you. They bust down your door. And they keep coming. They even kill your companion animals. Played skillfully, a diabolical organization in the material plane should have your players wishing they'd gone to Hell instead!